Ole Martin Moen began his 2015 essay with the following statement – “Pedophilia is bad”. The reason it is bad, he wrote, is because of the amount of harm it can cause. However, practices that do not harm children are morally “all right”. In this article, I will be responding to his argument that adult-child sex is immoral.
In his essay, Moen attempted to determine to what extent pedophilia is morally bad, not evaluatively bad or psychiatrically bad. He wrote that “pedophilia might well be evaluatively bad in the sense that it would be better if a given person were not a pedophile. Being a pedophile is unfortunate for the pedophile himself, who will most likely not have a good sexual and romantic life, and for a number of children, who might be seriously harmed by his actions. Pedophilia might also be psychiatrically bad in the sense that it might be a mental disease. But is being a pedophile, in the sense of having a sexual preference for children, immoral?”
Moen soon came to the conclusion that being a pedophile “is neither moral nor immoral” because nothing indicates pedophiles have choice or control over their sexual attraction, and morality generally implies a choice. However, the more complicated question he attempted to answer next was whether sexual activity between children and adults is immoral.
In the section “Adult-Child Sex”, Moen examined two different arguments concerning adult-child sex: The harm argument and the consent argument.
The Harm Argument
With regard to the “Harm Argument”, Moen wrote the following: “Psychological harm is more complex and more controversial than bodily harm, and it is also the kind of harm to which we must appeal if we seek to explain why most adult-child sex is harmful”. Psychological harm is a more pressing issue than bodily harm because many activities that have a risk of resulting in bodily harm are not necessarily immoral, and because, as Moen argued, “the most characteristic pedophile activities are cuddling, caressing, and genital fondling, and when full intercourse takes place, it occurs most commonly when the child is well into adolescence (Howitt 1995). It seems hard to argue that cuddling, caressing, and fondling causes physical harm to children’s bodies” (Moen, 2015). Attempting to understand the psychological effects of adult-child sex on children, Moen wrote: “There are several studies on the psychological effects of adult-child sex on children. One of the largest studies, funded by the US National Institute of Drug Abuse, found that in a sample of 1,400 adult women, childhood sexual abuse was significantly correlated with increased likelihood of drug dependence, alcohol dependence, major depression, and general anxiety disorder (Zickler 2002).” Zickler was citing a 2000 study by Kendler et al. However, Zickler failed to mention that Kendler et al.’s item asked only about unwanted incidents (Kendler et al., 2000). Moen postulates that this seems to be representative (of adult-child sex), but this study only looks at unwanted contacts experienced by females in one culture (20th century United States). There was also a high percentage of incest in this study (42.8%). These details are important because other studies have indicated that non-coercive, consensually-perceived experiences appear to not result in poorer adjustment (Dolezal et al., 2014), culture might influence how childhood sexual experiences are perceived (Dolezal et al., 2014), incestuous experiences appear more likely to result in negative effects (Beitchman et al. 1992), and females appear more likely to experience negative effects (Rind et al., 1998). Since this study was conducted in the United States alone, examining people below the United States’ age of consent, I am curious as to whether this study’s results would have differed if it was conducted using a different age limit, such as 18 or 14, or if it was conducted in a place where the age of consent was different. I also wonder what would have happened if they had also (or only) studied wanted sexual activity, or minor-initiated sexual activity (i.e. Before you reached age 16, had you ever initiated the following with any adult or person older than you?). Studies focused on female sexual abuse in the United States alone cannot claim to represent the risk of harm in all instances of adult-child sex, especially not adult-child sex that was felt to be wanted by the child, which would be the only kind most pro-reform advocates would want to decriminalize. There is no scientific study I currently know of that looks at the effects of only wanted adult-child sex and that can reasonably claim to be representative.
Moen also wrote that “Other studies identify a strong correlation between sexual abuse and various psychological disorders such as dissociative identity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, and various eating disorders. Meta-analyses estimate that between 51% and 79% of sexually abused children display symptoms of psychological disorders (see Hornor 2010)”. Horner (2010) cited Putnam (2003). The studies Putnam (2003) mentioned as having a significant correlation with the aforementioned psychological disorders are mainly clinical, but he wrote that these correlations are being replicated in community sample studies, and cited Beitchman et al., 1992; Bifulco et al., 1991; Ernst et al., 1993; Fergusson et al., 1996; Mullen et al., 1993; Polusny & Follette, 1995; and Ussher & Dewberry, 1995. This is somewhat misleading, as the reviews by Beitchman et al. (1992) and Polusny and Follette (1995) are not entirely community samples. They also included clinical samples, and Beitchman et al. (1992) did not find sufficient evidence to establish a link between CSA and psychological disorders such as dissociative identity disorder or borderline personality disorder. The other studies found correlations with some psychological disorders (such as eating disorders), but not with others (such as manic-depressive disorder or schizophrenia). The studies cited by Putnam (2003) also tended to study only unwanted contact (Ernst et al., 1993; Polusny & Follette, 1995; Fergusson et al., 1996; Mullen et al., 1993) or use negatively-charged words in their items (Bifulco et al., 1991; Ussher & Dewberry, 1995), study only females (Ernst et al., 1993; Mullen et al., 1993; Ussher & Dewberry, 1995), had a high percentage of incest (over 50% for Beitchman et al., 1992; Bifulco et al., 1991; over 80% for Ussher & Dewberry, 1995), and noted that the sexual abuse studied was in conjunction with or happened after other forms of abuse such as emotional abuse, violence and neglect, and these variables could influence the outcome (such as Beitchman et al., 1992; Bifulco et al., 1991; Polusny & Follette, 1995; Fergusson et al., 1996; Mullen et al., 1993)1. Because they were reviews of many past studies rather than a single study, I was unable to check Beitchman et al. (1992) and Polusny & Follette (1995) as thoroughly. Therefore I am unsure what percentage of Beitchman et al. included “unwanted” events. I predict that some of their studies may have also contained one or more of these elements. For example, Beitchman et al. (1992) was not a female-only review, but did include female-only studies, and the total was still overwhelmingly female. Encouragingly, some of these studies called for research to understand why some people are less effected by CSA: “research studies that investigate variables associated with more favorable adult outcomes have been greatly lacking. Understanding resilient individuals, or those showing evidence of higher levels of functioning, will identify important variables for those developing treatment programs for children who present with a history of sexual abuse” (Polusny & Follette, 1993).
Next, Moen discussed Robert Ehman, a philosopher who has defended adult-child sex. He explained three of Ehman’s arguments:
- studies on consensual adult-child sex are not represented as most studies on adult-child sex include non-consensual sex and are mainly comprised of negative experiences as that is what is reported most often
- adult-child sex is harmful predominantly because of how society treats and handles it
- children are sexual beings and can experience sexual gratification from children, so it is conceivable for them to also mutually experience sexual gratification from an adult
In response, Moen wrote: “Regarding his first argument, the appeal to an unrepresentative sample, we must concede that it is problematic that many studies are concerned only with cases that are brought to clinical or legal attention. It is worth noting, however, that not all studies suffer from this problem; the US National Institute of Drug Abuse study, for example, relies on a non-forensic and presumably representative sample, and still finds a significant correlation between adult-child sex and psychological problems.”
However, as mentioned earlier, this study only examined unwanted sexual incidents experienced by females in the United States, so we cannot claim it is representative of all adult-child sex.
Moen continued: “Though he might have been right that a group of unharmed children escaped the researchers’ attention, nothing in Ehman’s argument tells us how large that group is. His argument is compatible with the unharmed group being very large, but it is just as compatible with it being very small. We must also take into account the potential underreporting of harmful sexual abuse, so Ehman cannot assume that all, or even most, unreported cases did not result in harm. Children might have failed to tell anyone due to fear or shame, due to few or no prospects of being believed, or, in the worst cases, due to not living to tell. As such, the unrepresentative sample argument, though it does point to a weakness in some of the research, does not show that Ehman is right; it merely allows for the possibility that he is, and since more representative studies also find similar correlations, his first argument is very much weakened.”
Ehman’s point still stands. Most studies published about adult-child sex include non-consensual sex and negative experiences. In fact, most studies about adult-child sex consist of the same elements seen in the studies we just saw – they’re mostly clinical studies of unwanted incidents experienced by females in English-speaking countries. Moen mentioned that we must consider the possibility of abused children not reporting due to fear or shame, and while this is true, we must also consider the other side of that coin – that is, positively experienced sexual activities might not be reported due to them not being considered as abusive or important, and fear of outside intervention or judgement. I concede with Moen’s point that we do not know the percentage of children who are unharmed. However, since the more representative studies he talks about were not specifically named, they cannot be compared.
With regard to Ehman’s second argument, Moen began: “What concerns Ehman’s second argument, the appeal to a self-fulfilling prophecy, it seems hard to deny that cultural attitudes influence children’s psychological reactions to adult-child sex. In fact, this view has gained some recent support by the findings of Harvard psychologist Susan Clancy (2011), which indicate that victims of child sexual abuse typically do not suffer psychological problems because the abuse was traumatizing when it happened, but rather, that the abuse tends to become a problem later on when the memories are processed and examined, and the actions more fully understood. If much of the harm occurs only after conceptual evaluation, this might suggest an important role for cultural attitudes in determining children’s negative responses.
“This is not, however, enough to save Ehman’s argument. First, even if Ehman is right that the harms are culturally contingent, this does not make the harms any less real, for presumably, a child’s suffering is just as bad when it is contingent on culture as when it is not. A child, moreover, cannot be held responsible for having internalized the norms of his or her society. Though Ehman is right that if the harms are culturally contingent, this raises the question of whether our norms can and should be changed, it still holds true that until or unless they are changed, adult-child sex causes harm to children.”
I doubt that Ehman was trying to say the harm was less real, only that if he is right, adult-child sex is not intrinsically harmful, and the social norms that predominately make it harmful might be able to be changed.
“Second,” Moen argued, “the fact that we use strongly value-laden terms such as “molestation,” “abuse,” and “assault” does not show that our cultural attitudes cause the harms of adult-child sex through a self-fulfilling prophecy, for we might use strongly value-laden terms for the very reason that adult-child sex is harmful.”
Then I must ask the following:
- how do we know that it is harmful, and
- what causes that harm?
Certainly, there are cases of adult-child sex where the harm does not stem from societal views and structure. If we have evidence of such inherently harmful cases, we may confidently use those terms, but he wrote that there are situations in which the child may not be harmed, or even regard their experiences as positive. Would it be appropriate to use these “strongly value-laden terms” in such cases? Earlier, Moen acknowledged Susan Clancy’s findings that societal views often had a significant effect on how children perceived their experience; many children only learned to react negatively by noticing the way others reacted to adult-child sex. So then, perhaps, these terms would only be appropriate to use in a situation where the harm caused by adult-child sex was caused by something other than societal views – otherwise, they are stigmatizing terms, and can cause confusion or distress from the experience when there originally was none (Fishman via Rind et al., 1998).
“Third,” Moen writes, “regarding the appeal to Ancient Greece, it should be pointed out that what was condoned in Ancient Greek culture was sexual relationships between men and teenagers, not between men and prepubertal children (see Nussbaum 1994). Moreover, the fact that a certain practice was accepted in Ancient Greece does not show that the practice was harmless. Consider, for example, slavery or the oppression of women.”
For the most part, I agree with Moen on this point. The pederasty practiced in Ancient Greece was between adolescents and men, and not without its problems. However, putting aside the Greeks, there are cultures where sexual activity between actual prepubescent children and adults is accepted; in some cultures, parents masturbate their children to sleep, and in others, prepubescent children and adults engage in sex play together. Consider, for example, the Ingalik or Xokleng people (Janssen, 2006). This is certainly not to say that the aforementioned cultures handle adult-child sex in an ideal or harmless way. My reason for mentioning these cultures is not to argue that they are “better” or “correct”, but rather to question why certain customs (in this case, sexual activity between children and adults) are accepted in some places and times and not in others, and to understand that because they are not universal across time and space, they might be susceptible to change in the future.
Moen wrote the following to Ehman’s final argument (that children are sexual beings): “Here I think we must concede that children are, in some sense, sexual beings, and for the sake of the argument, let us also concede that this places the burden of proof on those who claim that there should not be any sexual contact between adults and children. Placing a burden, however, is not the same as settling a case, for the question then becomes whether the burden can be satisfied. To satisfy the burden, we would need to point to a difference, or a range of differences, between adults and children that explains why sexual contact between them harms children. There are, I think, several differences that can play this explanatory role. One difference, pointed out by Ben Piecker and Jan Steutel is that although children are sexual beings in one respect, child and adult sexualities are importantly different, and children and adults have different aims in sexual engagement. For one, children might often seek nothing sexual at all in physical intimacy with an adult, but rather, seek confirmation and affection. Moreover, even in cases where the child’s motivation for physical intimacy is in some sense sexual (presumably, a child can find genital fondling pleasant), the aims in sexual involvement are still different, for though children can experience sexual pleasure, and can be curious about others’ bodies, they do not feel sexually attracted to others and desire others’ bodies the way adults do (Piecker & Steutel 1997: 332-338).”
Firstly, I cannot confidently say that there are no children who feel sexually attracted to others or desire others’ bodies in a similar way to adults. One reason that Spiecker & Steutel (1997) gave for child and adult sexualities being different is that infants have auto-erotic sexuality, though older children (over about the age of 4) and adults typically do not have auto-erotic sexuality. They also write that because of their hormonal condition, prepubescent children cannot experience sexual desire and young children appear not to experience orgasms. There is no evidence to back up this claim, and the statement that very young children cannot experience orgasms is a controversial claim at best, as other studies have reported that they do (see Schaefer via Martinson, 1994). In addition, children as young as 8 or 9 have reported love fantasies that include physical aspects, and can find genital touching pleasant and exciting (Rademakers et al., 2000). With minors who have entered puberty, I can more confidently disagree. In any case, a difference in aims does not equal incompatibility. Even though children and adults are developmentally different and perceive the world in different ways, adults may also cater to the child’s developmental level as they do in all other aspects when interacting with children. And in fact, this is what we most often see in sexual child-adult relationships; the sexual activities most often consist of kissing, fondling, and non-penetrative activities (as Moen noted earlier). The adult tends to come down to the developmental level of the child with regard to sexuality rather than expecting the child to be as mature as them (O’Carroll, 1980). We don’t expect children to be able to read or do math at the same level as an adult, so why would we suddenly treat them as adults where sexuality is concerned? Secondly, even if an adult receives a different kind of enjoyment than a child, are all experiences between them incompatible, invalid, or immoral? For example, a child and adult might watch the same movie and enjoy it for different reasons. Is it then wrong that they watched it together? In that case, would mutualistic symbiosis be wrong because the two animals have different aims? Or is it only immoral when sexuality is involved? No two people have the exact same aims in life, but they can come together for enjoyment and cooperation. However, that being said, the aims of children and adults are not always significantly different; they might simply seek a physically pleasurable experience.
“In addition to having different aims,” Moen continued, “there is also an asymmetry of power and knowledge between children and adults. On the one hand, David Finkelhor observes, “adults control all kinds of resources that are essential to [children] – food, money, freedom, etc.” (Finkelhor 1979: 693). On the other hand, adults are more knowledgeable than children and children tend to trust adults. For these reasons, it might be very hard for a child to say no to an approaching adult, especially if the adult insists and has already gained the child’s trust. Presumably, the pressure can be overwhelming even if the adult does not intend it this way. Finally, children are vulnerable, so a bodily invasion and a breach of trust might cause significant difficulties for how children perceive their own bodies and how they perceive adults.”
In my opinion, this “power difference” argument is far more important than a “difference in aims” argument. However, it does not necessarily settle his case. Rather, it places the burden of proof back onto those who think adult-child sex has the potential to be moral. To prove that adult-child sex is not harmful, we would either have to prove that:
A. these differences do not exist, or
B. that they have a low risk of coming into play in a harmful manner.
I can demonstrate that such differences may not be harmful in some situations, and I can also give some very preliminary insights into whether the harm is “serious”. But because of a dearth of research, I am unable to prove exactly how high or low a risk adult-child sex generally is. I also will not attempt to prove that in the current environment, engaging in adult-child sex is not a high-risk behavior. However, if I concede that adult-child sex might pose a high risk of harm currently, but want to argue that it might not always be harmful, I can add a third qualifier:
C. there is a feasible way to lower the risk of these differences coming into play in a harmful manner to an acceptable level.
Now, because Moen does not specify what level of risk is acceptable, I cannot prove his conclusions wrong – I can only demonstrate the possibility that he may be wrong, and that current research leans in favor of qualifier C.
With regard to Finkelhor’s argument, we can say that not every adult controls a child’s source of food, money or freedom. It is usually only a select few adults – the caregivers – who control essential resources. In some cases, the child or their guardians might hold a substantial amount of power over the adult. For example, the adult might be employed under or by the child, and if a child (even falsely) accuses the adult of abuse, it may be enough to permanently damage their reputation. Power tends to lie with the person who needs the relationship less. When it comes to adolescent minors, there is an even greater possibility that the minor may overpower the adult. There are cases of adolescent minors sexually assaulting adults; for instance, see Meyers (2018), and adults aren’t always easily able to establish control over children. Depending on their personality and environment, a child might be just as resourceful and manipulative. They might also have more experience in certain situations that gives them an advantage. That being said, a certain amount of caregiver supervision may be useful in preventing an adult from abusing power. Under a regulation that allows for parent or guardian involvement, a child could be provided with adult support if difficult situations arise. This may help to even out some inequalities that stem from knowledge differences.
All relationships have some degree of inequality (power difference) to them. Where do we draw the line at what amount is okay, and what amount is not okay? Most people won’t get nearly as inflamed by stories where a royal falls in love with a commoner, a bodybuilder dating a small woman, the romance in Pumpkin, or even platonic friendships between adults and children. Indeed, there are no laws prohibiting adults from forming friendships with children, or preventing adults from having an adult sex partner who has delays in their mental development, or is significantly physically weaker or more knowledgeable than them, yet these relationships all have potential for abuse. What if Carolyn decided to harmfully manipulate Pumpkin? What if the bodybuilder decided to beat up the woman he’s dating? The problem with this is that we are playing the “what if?” game. This potential for abuse is not necessarily a problem unless it is exploited, and there are separate laws against this.
Moen wrote that “adults are more knowledgeable than children and children tend to trust adults”. An asymmetry of knowledge does not mean that the person will have a chance to use that knowledge to their advantage. Whether that knowledge will give them an advantage depends on the situation and whether they choose to exploit it. If we are talking about banning “consensual” adult-child sex because of a knowledge difference, we need to know how likely the knowledge difference is to cause serious harm.
Secondly, it’s true that children who taught to unquestioningly trust or obey their elders are at higher risk for abuse than others (Stoltenborgh et al., 2011), but this may be a cultural custom, which means it may be changeable. In Eastern culture, respect for elders may be more expected than in the West. In current Western culture, many children are encouraged to be careful around strangers and people whom they have not gotten to know very well. However, in other ways, culture may encourage trust of unfamiliar adults; for example, in church or in school. Many children do not trust all adults, nor do they trust them with everything. “Authoritative” sources tend to be trusted more, but children involved in pedophilic relationships often do not see the adult as an authoritative source (Brongersma, 1990). Children should be encouraged not to trust adults simply because they are adults, and have the children’s caregivers aware of and involved in the relationship. Discriminate trust of adults is something that can be reinforced. Infants with secure attachment tend to cry and make a fuss when they are separated from their primary caregivers or left in the care of an unfamiliar adult (see Ainsworth). A healthy trust develops once a person has gotten to know someone and that person has a good track record.
Moen wrote that “it might be very hard for a child to say no to an approaching adult, especially if the adult insists and has already gained the child’s trust.”
I agree that it may be hard for an adult to say no to an approaching child. If a person is someone we want to please, or has already gained our trust, or appears to have more knowledge than us about a topic we are unfamiliar with, we may go along with them and have more difficulty saying no. However, convincing someone to do something is not always abusive, and understanding when it is and when it is not is subject to varying opinions. Swaying someone might be abusive if they are swayed to do something that will cause them physical or (especially) emotional harm. It might be financially abusive for someone to pressure their partner to buy things that they cannot afford. It may also be considered abusive if the person one is attempting to convince has a reasonable fear of retaliation in the case they say “no”, in which case we might prefer to use the term “coerce” rather than “convince”.
So what harmful thing might the adult insist the child do? Perhaps they might try to insist them into sexual activity that they are not comfortable with. What might be helpful, in this case, is the child’s knowledge (not necessarily experience) of certain sexual activities and enough familiarity with their own body so that they already have an idea of what they do and do not like. They should also be able to be firm in their demands not to do something – and some children certainly can be (have you ever asked a stubborn child to stop playing video games?). Perhaps having such knowledge and abilities can be a way to gauge if a child is ready for sexual activity. However, it should be made clear that this potential for abuse of trust exists in all sorts of relationships, not just between adults and children, and not just between sexual partners.
“Finally, ” Moen wrote, “children are vulnerable, so a bodily invasion and a breach of trust might cause significant difficulties for how children perceive their own bodies and how they perceive adults.” I agree with Moen on this point. However, again, this risk is not limited to an adult nor to a sexual partner. Friends, parents, teachers, relatives, and many others can have the ability to influence a child’s self-esteem and their perception of the world, and they could also seriously damage it. Still, the concern is a valid one. Having connections with other adults to prevent and offset negative experiences with a particular adult may help a child know not all adults are bad, and help reinforce a positive perception of their bodies. The stigma of sexual abuse is also a problem. Children should not be made to feel ashamed if they experience sexual abuse.
Moen wrote that these differences “seem to come far in explaining why, in spite of the fact that children are sexual beings, adult-child sex harms children”. However, he acknowledged that these differences only mean there may be a risk of harm, not certain harm: “As long as our argument rests on an appeal to such differences, we must concede that it possible that in some cases children are not harmed by adult-child sex. There might be special cases where differences in aims, power, knowledge, and vulnerability do not come into play, or do not do so in a harmful manner. Indeed, we must concede that, in exceptional cases, the child might not only fail to be harmed but might also, retrospectively, view the incident positively.” He writes that these might be “special” or “exceptional” cases, but how exceptional are they?
Moen references a 1995 meta-analysis by Rind, Tromovitch & Bauserman which he writes, “found that a minority of college students who had had sexual contact with an adult when they were children, retrospectively described this experience as positive”. Now, I cannot find this particular 1995 study mentioned online. Since he says it was a publicly condemned meta-analysis, I believe he is referencing the 1998 meta analysis. However, in the 1998 meta-analysis, it is important to note that only the females showed an overall minority of positive experiences. For males, the most commonly reported type of experience was positive. Combined with “neutral” experiences, they become a two-thirds majority: “the majority (two-thirds) did not react negatively” (Rind et al., 1998). The reason for this rather significant gender discrepancy is not known and could benefit from further research. In addition, there is some indication that the percentage of negative experiences, and risk of harm from childhood sexual contact with an older partner, may vary from culture to culture. In a study of Argentinian men who have sex with men, 82% did not consider their childhood sexual experiences with an older partner to be abusive. However, similar studies in Brazil and the United States yielded different results; 67% and 41%, respectively. The studies of Argentinian and Brazilian men found no association between childhood sexual experiences (even ones the subject considered to be abusive) and current sexual risk behavior or substance abuse, but this was not true for the United States sample (Dolezal et al., 2014). In Clancy’s United States sample, she wrote that “child sexual abuse is rarely a traumatic experience for the victims at the time it occurs” and only 5% can be counted as traumatic. The previously mentioned meta-analysis by Rind et al. (1998) also found that even among negative experiences, extreme trauma was rare. More research will need to be conducted to find out what accounts for these differences.
Moen concludes that “adult-child sex exposes children to a high risk of being seriously harmed”.
What constitutes “high” risk? Is a high risk more than 50%, or 10%, or 5%? What constitutes “serious” harm? Is any negative experience serious harm? Do the effects have to be long-term or might they be short-term? When does a negative experience cross the threshold into being too dangerous?
To end this section, there is one overarching question I have to ask about all of the problems Moen presented. Is a complete ban on adult-child sex the best way to prevent these problems? Or could different methods be more effective? With regard to what a ban on adult-child sex does, I quote from my earlier writing: “How are age of consent laws going to keep adults from pressuring kids to lie? The only difference is with the age of consent laws, instead of the adult pressuring the minor to say they enjoyed aspects of their [sexual] relationship, they are pressuring the minor to keep the whole [sexual] relationship a secret. Keeping the whole relationship a secret may be more dangerous because 1) if a relationship is consensual, it may confuse and distress the child it by saying it was abuse and putting it in the same category as acts of rape and molestation, and 2) if nobody else is aware of it, there are less eyewitnesses to detect an inconsistency in what the child is saying, and someone from the outside cannot as easily intervene” (Hikari, 2017). From Newgon, I quote the following: “Without an age of consent, sex taboo, witch hunt and the harsh punishments it supports – less of these relationships would be hidden, meaning that any abuse would be more visible, easier to speak out about and less inductive to blackmail, gagging and at the extreme end, murder by abusers. If law pinpointed exactly what was unacceptable to those involved, instead of performing a simplifying broad sweep, society as a whole could become aware of what constitutes abuse (i.e. coercion / harm, on the complaint of a victim or observer), and the courts could consider what went on by considering a healthy, diverse number of questions rather than the one main ‘yes or no’. Finally, minors would be allowed to have relationships with the responsible, law-abiding adults that must turn them down under prohibition. With the laws, they are driven into the hands of careless sexual partners who have no respect for the law” (Newgon, 2010). The laws and sociopolitical climate might be preventing MAPs who care about law and societal attitudes from acting, but do little to stop those who don’t care about laws and societal attitudes. If nonviolent, wanted sexual activity between children and adults were decriminalized and made free to talk about in the open, this might help children to recognize the distinction between “consensual” and “non-consensual” activity and help lower the risk of sexual abuse. It might also help if pedophilia, child sexuality and sexual abuse were not treated as taboo subjects.
The Consent Argument
Next, Moen examined the “consent” argument. He wrote: “Another common argument as to why it is wrong to engage in adult-child sex is the consent argument. This argument can also be formulated in terms of two premises: first, that it is wrong to engage in sex without consent; second, that children cannot consent to sex, such that all sex involving children becomes non-consensual.” So why is it that children cannot consent to sex? Is it because they do not understand it? Moen argued that this isn’t a sufficient reason. As an example, he wrote that “If my son ventured to read Hegel, it is evident that he would not know what he was doing. Still, since this would presumably not expose him to any significant risk of harm, there would be nothing wrong in letting him do so.” Rather, Moen wrote that children cannot consent to sex with an adult because it is harmful, and children do not have the same privilege to consent to harmful activities that adults do. Therefore, Moen concluded that the consent argument is only strong as long as the harm argument is strong. However, because of the reasons mentioned in the previous paragraphs, I argue that Moen’s harm argument is only strong in certain aspects and situations.
In the next section, Moen discussed “blameworthiness”, or how much adults should be blamed for engaging in adult-child sex. ”Let us take for granted that pedophiles cannot be ignorant of the truth of the normative premise that it is immoral to expose children to a significant risk of serious harm.” He wrote. “Could it be, however, that many pedophiles are ignorant of the truth of the empirical premise that adult-child sex exposes children to such harms?”
While I agree that adult-child sex can expose children to harm, I am not ready to agree that this is always and necessarily the “truth”. However, it’s possible that some pedophiles disagree with the premise that adult-child sex exposes children to serious harm. A recent study by Jahnke & Malón (2019) found that a majority of minor-attracted men recruited online believed sex between minors and adults could be “morally okay”. Though, of course, this does not mean that they didn’t believe there isn’t a serious risk. In fact, 88% of these men agreed “that the child would have to fear stigmatization from society due to his or her sexual activities” (Jahnke & Malón, 2019). Moen also writes that “in spite of the appeal to ignorance and the appeal to moral luck, it might well be that some forms of adult-child sex, such as rape, are so clearly harmful that our intuitive assumptions about blameworthiness are fully justified”, which I agree with.
Fictional stories and computer generated graphics
Next, Moen discusses the morality of pedophilic fictional stories and computer generated graphics. He decides that they are morally acceptable so long as they do not involve real children or encourage adult-child sex in reality. He also considers whether pedophilia can be considered a disease or not, and finds that there is little argument for pedophilia being considered a mental disorder. His views on this are not the focus of my response, so I will skip over this for now.
Moen concludes that being a pedophile is neither moral nor immoral. In addition, it should probably not be considered a mental disorder. He writes that enjoyment of fictional stories and computer-generated graphics with pedophilic content is morally acceptable. For all that I have criticized him, I am thankful for Moen saying that “our aim should not be to find outlets for our disgust and outrage, but rather, to minimize what is the real problem: harm to children”. He writes that “condemning pedophiles for being pedophiles is unjust, and non-offending pedophiles, rather than deserving condemnation for their pedophilia, deserve praise for their admirable willpower”, and that “To prevent harm to future children, we would also be well advised to start teaching high school students not just what to do in case they are victims of sexual abuse (which, thankfully, we have started telling them over the last few decades), but also what to do in case they themselves are pedophiles. A certain percentage of high school students either are or will become pedophiles, and currently they are not given any advice on how to handle their sexuality.” Moen also concluded that adult-child sex is immoral, and the current ban on adult-child sex, even wanted adult-child sex, should continue to be upheld. Moen’s strongest argument for wanted adult-child sex being immoral is that there is potential, or risk, for abuse. However, mere risk does not give us enough grounds to condemn wanted adult-child sex specifically, because it would have to be shown that it exposes children to a reasonably “high” risk of “serious” harm. Moen may have demonstrated that non-consensual adult-child sex has these features (and I agree with him on the point that non-consensual adult-child sex is immoral and rightfully illegal), but because it has not been studied thoroughly, we do not know how often, nor how severely, this risk of harm becomes actualized in “consensual” adult-child sex, and we do not know whether societal changes could help reduce that risk. The fact remains that we still do not know much about wanted adult-child sex (however, we do know that it generally results in far less/perhaps no psychological adjustment problems (Dolezal et al., 2014)), nor what amount of adult-child sex is wanted versus unwanted (and whether this could change as society progresses). I also think that, in addition to shielding children from sexual knowledge, the effect that age-of-consent laws have on decreasing child sexual abuse is debatable. In fact, such laws may be causing more emotional damage, sexual abuse, and other related sexual ills than they are worth (see previous post). The risk for harm might indeed be quite low if certain aspects of our society were to change, in which case, the “bad”ness of pedophilia, and adult-child sex, will have to be reassessed.
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1 Mullen et al. and Fergusson et al. attempted to address family environment in their studies. Once Mullen et al. made an allowance for family dysfunction via logistic regression, they found that there was still a correlation between “contact” sexual abuse and mental health problems (except for those mentioned on the standard General Health Questionnaire). It should be noted that women reporting abuse that did not involve genital touching or worse, no longer showed significantly increased odds ratios in favour of adult psychopathology, with the exception of being a case on the chronic scoring of the GHQ which just reached significance. Fergusson et al. also controlled for family environment and found a correlation between contact sexual abuse and health problems, particularly “severe” abuse that involved intercourse. They mentioned that recall bias could also be a confounding factor which they could not rule out. They conclude that CSA “may play a significant, but not overwhelmingly strong, role in determining individual vulnerability to psychiatric disorder” (Fergusson et al., 1996).